Rising to the occasion

by Bryan Salvage
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Succeeding in today’s business environment requires establishing points of difference in products, services and processes – and moving fast to satisfy sometimes unusual, unique customer demands. Lake Villa, Ill.-based C&F Packing Co. clearly recognizes this and in the process has become one of the largest U.S. independent processors of custom, private-label sausage products, pizza toppings and other cooked-meat products – including natural products – in the U.S.

As a testament to the company’s continuing growth and success, this family owned-and-operated company finished construction of a 120,000 sq.-ft., technology-rich production plant in 2001. It processes approximately 250 valueadded products, mostly for foodservice customers such as Little Caesars and 25 percent for retail customers including Sam’s Club, which it supplies with Member’s Mark brand chicken sausage.

Growth and evolution

The story behind C&F’s evolution is the realization of the American Dream. In 1920, 9-year old Sam Freda came to the U.S. from Italy. Thirteen years later, Freda, began his career in the meat business in a converted garage on Chicago’s West Side.

"We went from a 7,000 sq.-ft. [Chicago] plant in 1985 to a 54,000 sq.-ft. plant in the northwest Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village to specialize in cooked pizza toppings," recalls Joe Freda, president, CEO and son of the company’s founder.

Needing to improve quality and increase capacity required C&F to search for another site to build an even larger plant. The search led to the purchase of approximately 16 acres in Lake Villa, Ill., where the current plant is located. And the facility continues evolving today to accommodate increasing and changing customer demands. Approximately 145 employees work at the plant.

What’s driving C&F’s business are its custom-manufacturing capabilities, innovative R&D, top-notch customer service, word-of-mouth advertising from its growing customer base and having a reputation for quality and consistency, says Seattle-based Mark Freda, Joe’s son, who is also director of sales and business development.

Focused on "U"

Company executives are proud of many things regarding this unique plant, including the facility’s modified "U" production pattern. "We could run approximately 200,000 lbs. of product a day if we were running at full capacity on our current production lines [three cook lines and one fresh line]," say Mike Stock, vice president and seven-year company veteran who oversees the plant, and Nedal (Ned) Fakhouri, plant manager and 19-year company veteran. Fakhouri also heads up R&D, including new product development, among other duties.

Stock declines discussing annual revenues but says sales have increased in each of the past several years.

Joe Freda attributes growth to the company’s ability to react quickly to potential opportunities. "We can turn things around pretty quickly compared to the big boys," he says. "This is how we built our reputation. Customers will call our competitors about product development and the competition will say, ‘We think we can do a little R&D for you in the research lab in 30 days.’ If you call C&F Packing in the morning, we’ll get something going for you that same afternoon."

"We always manage to complete developing a new product within a short period of time," Fakhouri confirms. "That’s what makes us different from a huge company. If you want a new-product sample, [a large company] will tell you it will take a month or two just to develop it."

C&F takes pride in providing products that aren’t "off the shelf", Stock says. "We work with customers to tailor products to match their needs," he adds.

The plant includes a pilot kitchen for product development, test kitchen for testing new products, a large state-ofthe-art quality control lab and a micro lab with its own HVAC and separate entrance for product testing.

A typical new-product development project involves C&F personnel working with a customer’s R&D technologists to tailor or develop a protein for their application.

Delivering pizza toppings

Stock cites one example of just how fast the company can develop a new product. One pizza-manufacturing customer started working with a large food manufacturer on developing a chicken topping for a national-brand pizza. Everything was ready to go to production except the chicken topping was not right, Stock said. "In a panic, the pizza manufacturer contacted us for help," he adds. "Using only an ingredient statement and a basic product description, Ned was able to duplicate the product, make a sample and gain approval from the customer in just two days."

C&F Packing incorporates just about every type of cooking you can think of except a microwave," Joe Freda says. "We can cook just about any way between our ovens, smokehouses and kettles, which is unique to many plants in this industry," he adds.

Being proactive and innovative put C&F Packing "on the map," he iterates. "We developed a new way to make pizza toppings that Pizza Hut eventually took nationwide," he adds.

Joe explains that most pizza-topping manufacturers make toppings by taking raw meat, extruding it into either an oil bath or water bath and then cooking each individual piece. But this process forms a protein shell around the meat, which prevents the topping from changing shape.

"We developed a process where we stuff raw meat into a large chub, cook the chub and then extrude the cooked chub into pieces so it doesn’t have a protein shell around it," Freda says. "The meat twists and turns so it looks homemade. It looks like Mama put pieces of fresh sausage on top of the pizza."

Joe Freda says more product diversification is in the company’s future. "Five years ago, we weren’t making ham products," he adds. "Now we do. Ten years ago we weren’t processing cooked, diced chicken; now we have 30 different types of cooked, diced and seasoned chicken. Our business is constantly expanding. We’re a niche player. People come to us for their product needs – whether it’s a small manufacturer of pizza or a large packer that decided to close an antiquated plant and job-out different products. We have built a reputation on being a custom manufacturer."

"Chicken seems to be growing in popularity more each year," Joe Freda adds, "whether its gourmet chicken sausages or diced, cooked chicken. We also do a lot of chicken-soup bases. We’re also doing more turkey, which we didn’t do a lot of five years ago."
Unique operations

Joe Freda is equally proud of his plant’s co-generation and waste-treatment systems. Two 1100kw, self-contained engine-generator modules are installed in a dual parallel 480/277-volt scheme. In the emergency-power mode, they can supply 2200kw of power to all critical loads and numerous selected loads as desired.

Plant production areas contain hose stations and stainless-steel floor drains for use during wash-down operations. All process waste collected by the floor drains is piped separately from the sanitary waste into a waste-treatment area. The smokehouses have stainless-steel floor drains that discharge into a stainless-steel piping system that connects to the process waste system with a solenoid-operated diverter valve.

Wash-down operations (including much of the grease equipment) produce brown (or bad) grease. The brown grease is skimmed-off by a gravity separator and goes into a holding tank. The sludge that collects in the bottom of the separator is also pumped into a holding tank and both are accumulated in these tanks awaiting vendor pick-up.

During smokehouse and other cooking operations, the grease that is produced during these processes is considered white or yellow (good) grease, which is piped from these rooms to the waste-treatment area using some of the existing stainless-steel floor drains and piping. Once in that area, it is diverted to separate holding tanks designated for the white and yellow grease and this, too, is held for vendor pick-up.

Wastewater from the separator is equalized and diverted into a diffused air-floatation tank where it is further treated and then discharged into the sanitary sewer as clear water.

"We release water that is cleaner than what we receive," Stock says.

Focus on food safety

In an effort to ensure separation of raw and cooked operations at the plant, separate entrances, employee support facilities, flow-through smokehouses and shipping and receiving docks are maintained independently for each side of the plant. Additionally, independent HVAC systems prevent cross-contamination of air-born pathogens from the raw to cooked operation. A pioneering process for refrigeration and ventilation dedicates separate supply and returnair to both raw and cooked operations including unique filtering and environmental controls.

Raw protein ingredients ultimately end up in the plant’s 15,000 sq.-ft., grinding room where 13 employees are assigned. "It is the most automated operation in the facility and it generates all of the formulated batter that gets allocated to our different lines," Stock says.

"Our grinding-room system is totally computerized by a control panel on the master platform that is elevated above the entire grinding room floor," Fakhouri adds. "All of our recipes are inputted into the system, which includes blending time, temperatures and more. Each formulation has a specific code number. Inputting the code number on the control keypad will give you the same exact product each time. You can run all the equipment with one person."

Martin Glab, plant engineer and eight-year employee, says of the grinding operation: "[The grinding-room system] is completely integrated with the latest WPOP data collection and communications. It connects everything. We have a tremendous ability to correct an issue and control the processes through one control panel."

After grinding, product moves into an adjacent holding cooler. From there, products are transferred to cookhouses, smokehouses, ovens or to the sausagestuffing room for final processing prior to freezing and packaging.

C&F’s new smokehouses feature flow-through cooking. Raw product enters the smokehouse from the raw side and exits into the cooked side to prevent cross-contamination. Room exists to add more smokehouses when they become needed.

Products are frozen by either mechanical or cryogenic freeze tunnels in a separate freezing room. "We are in the process of adding another mechanicalfreezer system," Glab says.

Product is packaged after traveling into the 40°F pack-off room. Products are then transferred into an expandable freezer, which can store approximately 125 truckloads of frozen product (40,000 lbs. per truck), or, onto the 32°F shipping dock adjacent to the freezer.

Acid-resistant brick flooring is located throughout the production areas. Some processing rooms also incorporate stainless-steel walls and ceilings.

The company has even designed and built some of its own equipment. "Our nugget machine is one example," Glab says "We designed and built many process controls for the plant. We often design our own conveyors or ovens."

C&F’s primary food-safety intervention is raw-material control plus ensuring its HACCP program’s critical limits are tight, says Dr. Priya Sundaram, quality-assurance director and 10-year company veteran. "Our primary product is frozen so we have a lethality step there," she adds. "[In maintaining food safety], we primarily focus on using procedures that are consistent with industry best practices.

C&F rarely uses raw materials that are processed, she continues. "We pride ourselves on gourmet products," she explains. "A lot of our ingredients are very basic, such as fresh meat, vegetables and cheese. We look more at the supplier, facility and procedures they have in place [when choosing suppliers]. We track product performance."

"We look for consistency from our suppliers in regards to not only quality of raw materials but also product availability, service, pricing, etc. We have developed strong relationships with many of our suppliers to ensure the ongoing commitment to quality and consistent performance, which is critical for us to be able to, in turn, create these relationships with our end customers," Stock says.

Sourcing from local suppliers is a benefit for a variety of reasons, including the ability to quickly adapt to changing production requirements, Stock adds. Despite the troubled economy,

"Business is good," Fakhouri says. And the facility is designed for even more expansion.

"We’re putting in a new oven and a new mechanical freezer," Joe Freda says. "We’re adding another cook line. Back in 1985, we had no cooking facilities. We slowly got out of manufacturing primarily raw products and now 95 percent of our products going out the door are cooked. That’s seems to be where everything is going. Mom doesn’t cook anymore."

Mark Freda says the facility may add more line automation while remaining flexible, and it may get more into brand building. "There is a lot of demand for various patties right now," he adds. "If the trend continues, there might be some investment in more patty/burger equipment."

However C&F Packing decides to evolve in the future, it will be driven by customer demand and lead to further diversification. "Product diversification is how our business has grown over the years," Joe Freda concludes.

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